Help me find a laptop for programming
February 8, 2012 8:33 AM   Subscribe

I generally work from home and have an excellent desktop machine that never lets me down. Occasionally I have to travel, and when I do I take an ancient Dell Inspiron 8500 to work on and use for remote support. Long story short, the Dell has died and I'm out of touch with laptop options. Anyone know the best portable machines for programmers?

The three most important concerns are cost (it'll be used very rarely), keyboard (full size and all usable "all day") and vertical screen resolution (I'd like 900px at least, preferably something like 1080px). Decent battery life would be a nice bonus.

I don't really care about processor speed (much of my work is on remote machines), basic graphics can display text terminals as well as expensive ones, and whatever the OS is will be nuked for a minimal Linux install so fancy software bundles aren't needed.

My problem is that most suppliers seem to only sell 768px high screens (even in large sizes like 15.6") unless you also upspec other areas like the processor, memory and disk. I'd be more than happy with a 64GB SSD rather than a 720GB Harddisk.. but again this seems to only be available on premium models.

Does anyone know where I can get a top of the line screen and keyboard on a budget chassis? When I last bought a laptop (years ago) Dell used to let you do this kind of thing. I can't find the options any more...
posted by samworm to Technology (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Like The Wirecutter says, the MacBook Air is the Best Laptop Ever Created.

Oh, and I saw a guy on the train coding in Ubuntu on it, so there's that too.
posted by Oktober at 8:55 AM on February 8, 2012

How about an older off-lease or refurb Thinkpad T series? They're great Linux machines, have fantastic keyboards, and come in 1440x900 screen resolution. Should be reasonably inexpensive now. Battery life won't be great compared to newer efficient CPUs, but that's the trade-off for inexpensive.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 10:04 AM on February 8, 2012

If anyone tried to part me from my Toshiba Portege, they'd leave missing an arm or a leg. Super lightweight & super powerful (if you don't need high-end graphics, which you don't). I can even play Skyrim on it, which felled my old Lenovo.
I linked to one of the latest models, with an Intel core i5-2450m processor and 4 GB RAM. Memory is easy to upgrade if needs be. I have used mine (a Toshiba Portégé R705-P41) for over a year and I still love it. I am a recent convert away from Linux to Windows 7 (which runs pretty minimally for my tastes). But if you want to run Linux on this, I'd check the driver availability. There is a Toshiba Portege R700 (which is a similar spec.) that seemed to work with little driver additions. You will probably need Broadcom and USB3 drivers for any newer machine, but I suspect that most Linux distributions now support these.
posted by Susurration at 1:40 PM on February 8, 2012

By the way, if you want more than a 768px screen, Dell is your best bet. I searched high and low for a 1080p display for my SO. Dell are the only company fitting high-end screens to affordable notebooks (their XPS 17" range). But lightweight they are not.
As a software engineer myself, I hate 16:9 screens with a vengeance - but they seem here to stay. If you want light, a 13" 1366 x 768 screen @ 3lbs is your best bet.
posted by Susurration at 1:46 PM on February 8, 2012

I like Dells, but Thinkpads are good too. When I bought my two Dells, I used their outlet store and bought refurbs. They were just like new, and approx 2/3 the retail price. I got a Latitude d830 with all the fixin's in 2008 for about $850. What's nice about the Latitudes is that they generally come with a 3 year warranty.
posted by gjc at 4:14 PM on February 8, 2012

Lenovo Ts (slim) series. I absolutely love mine. Previously has an X61s. Would love to have one of those new X220s.

The keyboard is excellent; I'm writing my PhD thesis exclusively on one and it's a dream.

Real life useage: everything on including accelerated graphics, the batteries last just under an hour. On conservative running multiple programs and driving a projector it'll last just under 3 hours. I've had this machine for a couple of years+ now. This is with the slim battery, I think there are bigger power packs for it, too.

I use a 2.5" 150GB SSD as the primary, and swapped out the optical drive for a 2.5" 7200rpm 500GB drive. This is an incredible setup, with a great (at the time) i5 chip.

Sign up for their newletters, sometimes there are 30% off deals and older models get discounted.
posted by porpoise at 6:38 PM on February 8, 2012

The low end of laptops these days (Thinkpad E520) are going to come with 1366x768 16:9 ratio screens, which it sounds like you don't want... The Thinkpad T or W series might be suitable, or you could even buy a used thinkpad T series off eBay for $250 and put a new $35 battery in it. There may be some new Thinkpad T series available with 1600x900 screen for sub $700 new if you look.

Another idea is to buy the laptop with whatever hard drive comes in it, and then buy a small Intel 3rd generation SATA2 SSD from Newegg and do the replacement yourself. May be cheaper and result in better performance than buying a laptop with whatever "stock" 64GB or 128GB SSD is available.
posted by thewalrus at 7:26 PM on February 8, 2012

If you are absolutely needing the 1080p resolution, I can recommend the ASUS "republic of gamers" laptops for hard-core development on (such as CAD or 3d developement). Battery life sucks, however. Saeger also apparently makes a good comparable system; this is on my short-list for this year. These all cost $700-$1300 depending on features.
If you can live with the typical 768p system, I personally like the Lenovo G570 or similar models (using one right now) - I can get 3+ hours on it coding with the wireless going. More if I turn the wireless off. The keyboard is very nice for a laptop. $400 or so.
posted by Old'n'Busted at 7:59 PM on February 8, 2012

I'm not sure what your budget is, but I've been running my business from a Z-series VAIO and love it. I've heard good things about their 15.5" S series laptops, which will run you about 1k and comes with the screen resolution you desire. A higher capacity battery can be purchased for it as well.
posted by Th!nk at 8:07 PM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

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